Endless Darwinism, Most Flexible;
A non-Darwinian philosopher’s review of “Endless Forms, Most Beautiful,” by Sean B. Carroll.
by Liam Scheff
published by W.W. Norton and Co. 2006
Dr. Carroll likes his rock and roll, and he’ll give you an unwanted lyric from time to time, to let you know that he’s cool, as well as really smaht. The under-title of the book, and its constant refrain throughout – the rhyming, new-wave rock-sounding “Evo Devo,” gives the biggest hint as to what’s wrong with this ‘new’ science.
The clever, cloying catch-phrase will now be employed by undergraduates, and Ph.D. candidates everywhere, to describe a myriad of processes that they don’t understand. (They’ll just sound cute and clever saying it). Carroll throws it around blithely, to cover a variety of sins.
The trouble with the book isn’t what Dr. Carroll gets right. Indeed, things develop! There are patterns to that development. Those mechanical patterns can sometimes be elucidated, even described, even tinkered with to produce horrible, horrible animals (that researchers should be remorseful for causing to suffer, but don’t seem to care much at all).
The reductionists have named genes, described some intermediary functions, given clever, populist names to their ideas: Hox genes! Toolbox genes! Do they control the birth and regulation of the entire organism? Are the great mysteries solved at last!?
Yes! Or, well, no, goes the answer. It’s just another step on that ‘right track,’ we’re told, with firm self-assurance. Indeed, the research is interesting and daring, and he should be praised for his courage in (perhaps unintentionally) undermining the Darwinian world-view. How fast is change? How quick evolution?
Fast. Quick. As needed. (As needed? To that in a moment).
When Dr. Carroll sticks to the short descriptions of laboratory process, the book is most interesting. His ‘science by analogy’ was less so – and even more dubious in content. Dr. Carroll takes a leap into an empty water glass by proposing that much of DNA should be seen as “Dark Matter,” something Dr. Carroll admits he knows little about – something which competitive research in plasma physics will tell you simply does not exist: “dark matter,” that invisible, untestable non-substance is a fashionable but empty pseudo-explanation for another failing post-Enlightenment theory – the Big Bang.
But back to the genome. We’re given a short tour, which is both a little dense, and a little under-served in true technical description. We’re all too quickly pawned off with those glib shortcuts, genes are “turned on and turned off,” and “selected for or against.” By the end of the book, we’re brought back to the 19th Century, and reminded of the value of Darwinian “fitness.” “Selection and fitness!” What do they mean? How does it really work? (You just have to believe it does, or you can’t go along for the rest of the tour).
But for all the complexity on exhibit in the work, we learn what we might have learned by opening our eyes in a field of wild grass and little creatures: Life emerges from a vital, unified, endlessly-renewing matrix; living things are reflections and refractions of each other. They mimic and recapitulate form ever and always in subtle or wild new arrangements.
Dr. Carroll gives us his specialty’s machinist point of view of their great discovery: A repeated signal or segment of chromosome can give rise to related parts across species. That is, one gene from fly to mouse seems to activate the creation of parts that have similar functions – the ‘toolkit gene‘ for your rump, for example is a hind-quarter in whatever other animal that gene appears in. A gene that seems to give permission for an eye to develop in a fly or small insect, also seems to give the same permission in a mouse.
But Carroll and his supporters will tell you that these genes ‘control’ the development, or ’cause’ it. All they do, however, is give permission for a process to arise. But more on that in a moment.
There are two concepts in evidence here that will trouble the Darwinian mind to no end; two themes that jump up and out over and over again in the work. The first is the ever-present ghost of Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, the French biologist who determined a theory of evolution before Charles Darwin, which stated that living creatures adapt to their environments willfully – by force of activity and desire. That is, by the application of energy to use of their body, that over time, and increasing in progeny, new structures would be formed.
Neo-Darwinism has made any kind of active feedback loop informing the morphology of the next generation strictly verboten. Their theory clings like a nervous boy in a sea of hot-blooded women to it’s virgin idealization of that fortuitous, prescient “chance accident,” which allows all of life to magically produce that just-so variation which colors its tail red and makes its beak into a snout, just ahead of the need for it. How very lucky is Darwin’s evolution!
But all common sense, and all practical application cries out for an active feed-back loop, a refinement of Lamarck. And here in these conserved genes, we have a potential receiving vessel: In Carroll’s observations of the separation, duplication and recapitulation of raw forms, remade again and again across lines and species, we have a soft, doughy template onto which structural changes could be projected. It just asks a feedback loop to be present, to alter, where alteration is desired. And those feedback mechanisms are banging down the door of Darwin’s house, and very soon, the charging work of the Epigeneticists will be living here, in Carroll’s work, if it is not already.
What Carroll makes apparent – again – is that evolution occurs most easily in the plastic state – it is fast, and it is supple, and it responds to the environment, and the environment to the organism. And Richard Dawkins should get some salt and gravy for his hat, because he’s going to be eating it soon, and for a long time…
The second concept arising from Carroll’s work is more radical still: The fractal and field nature of existence; increasing complexity through serial repetition; this is the avenue of the formation of individual beings, from masses of cells, sub-dividing into identical sub-sections, like flour and water and salt rolled into doughy balls, and lined up on a tray, not yet shaped or baked – but ready and waiting. This soft line of identical parts is a description of larva, of embryos of formative species, the earlier, smaller, more flexible versions of sentient beings.
These individual ‘buns in a row,’ then flow down Waddington’s “chreodes” – established pathways, like a depression tracing down a hillside, or a well-worn path – into ever increasingly stylized, augmented, stretched or squished, bleached or burnished, flexed or jointed parts; parts of all kinds, arising from identical, duplicated little bits of dough – of potential energy and form. Here we have an opening as wide and deep as the Valles Marineris for morphegenic field theory, in action.
What is a morphogenic field? It’s a concept – an idea – of a field which shapes development, an energizing form that exists above the small mechanics of four base pairs in DNA. Rupert Sheldrake proposed this field theory in his book, “A New Science of Life.” A morphic field is a shape which exists not only in three dimensional space – up, down, forward, back – but also in time – from ancestor to progeny, across endless generations. It is shared with all of the organisms of its kind, reinforcing their similar development. The energized field achieves the creation of patterns through morphic memory held in a field similar to an electro-magnetic, or gravitational field.
But Sheldrake could offer no specific biochemical technology through which this might be achieved. He admitted as much, to his credit. (If Darwinians would have as much humility, their version of evolution would still be a theory, indeed, and not a hardened ‘truth.’) But Sheldrake’s work gains direction from Dr. Mae-Wan Ho’s observations (in The Rainbow and the Worm) of the electrostatic nature of living tissue, which she describes as ‘polyphasic liquid crystal,’ built from collagen networks. That is, living tissue is a liquid crystalline structure, based in collagen matrices, which acts as a transmitter, receiver and storage place for sub-atomic energy – proton transfer across hydrogen bonds in water.
Could this be the domain of a charged field, which, electrically or atomically direct, perhaps in holographic memory, the fractal-like differentiation observed by Carroll, et al?
Well… maybe. It’s certainly fun to think about. But back to Dr. Carroll.
He tells us, with nice evidence, that embryos of all variety arise from nearly identical templates; they differentiate into their complex form through activation by shared collections of genetic material; they seem to ‘canalize’ into final forms almost by a kind of pre-determined magic, once in the right place, at the right time.
It’s neat stuff to know. But why is this revolutionary? It is certainly a turning of the wheel for the Darwinians; there can be no doubt about that. It demonstrates ably (though unconsciously) that most of the old established evolutionary ‘truths’ were mostly bunk. That is, they weren’t true – they were men grasping in the dark at ideas of how life could come into existence – and once in existence, could mutate or metamorphose into so many forms, so endless, most…you know.
The old idea was, well, ever-changing. But it had one solid idea at its core, and in its foundation: Life was a machine, and not a spiritual adventure; it was logical, and mechanical, and would be understood to be so, and all other points of view would be hanged.
How did evolutionary theory come to reside in this place?
The pioneers of today’s evolution, have themselves ‘evolved,’ changed and mutated over time, from theologically-inclined naturalists, to reactive brittle atheists. They are pressed against a wall, not of their creation, but of their inheritance. They are the children of René Descartes, and the hostile European determination that the Church would never influence the life of mankind – of Intellectuals – so cruelly and totally as it had, at times, in the Middle Ages.
And so, to cleanse themselves of that way of thinking, they erased the soul of the world. It needed to be a dead thing, machine-like, and without spirit or vital force – only pulleys, levers, cogs and wheels. Intellectuals wanted to dispense with Church authority-as-fact, and sought to find their own testable basis for reality. And they did – they left the spirit behind, and boy, did they. To the degree that the screaming in pain of tortured animals, to René Descartes (and his intellectual children) became nothing more than the squeaking of gears in a wooden machine.
And so life, devoid of vital force, or a transcendent penetrating universal spirit (or energy), was to be explained as such: “The world and all its creatures are machines; one cannot mention transcendent forces, or a Creator, or intelligent, organized, systematic creativity. No! It is all ‘blind chance.’ That is science!“
And that is where we live. Or, that is where scientists live. The world continues to be a vitalistic, spirit-infused entity, which the mechanists struggle and fail to describe in their self-limiting vocabulary. And so science writers endlessly commit a series of gaffs when they write or speak about the actual world, always referring to nearly magical events that evade mechanistic description in passive and strained verb tenses, which beg the question: But WHO or WHAT made it happen?
There in the standard literature on evolution, you will discover a world of teleological intention: Limbs and organs “adapt themselves to,” “choose a new pathway,” “invent,” “are designed to,” “free themselves from;” living creatures “take advantage of,” “devise a new plan,” and “run riot with innovation.”
Does this sound like a dead, mechanical, mindless process? But so it goes, on and on, in every book, article and documentary on the topic. But who did the devising? Nature! Who’s that? Is it a she? No, just a set of laws. A set of laws devised and maintained by whom?
This is the place all Western science writers live and die. They’re still fighting an idea of an Medieval God (The Judeo-Christian Jahweh, and El – look up any reference on ‘father gods‘). This, an exterior force, all-knowing, all-controlling, who either started the entire project rolling, and walked away, or is watching, like Santa Claus, taking notes on good and bad behavior.
But this is a particular Western fascination – or illness, transmitted through wandering reductionists. Taoism certainly has no bias against examination of both the earthly and the metaphysical. The Tao is all, it manifests in infinite form, in endless and myriad opposition. Make a study of it! Hinduism is centered in greeting the purpose emanating into us, and our world, from and through a transcendent source. This in no way excludes mechanical science in their world view. Why should it in ours? Their gods are not separate entities who never mingle with the people; their creator God Brahma, dreams the world into existence, and in the dream, plays all the parts, and in playing the parts of you and me and everyone and thing we see and know, forgets that it’s a play, and takes it seriously…
But what does that have to do with this book?
The author, Carroll, struggles as all reductionist Darwinian synthesizers do with the “why” of things. In fact, they often are so confused themselves about why anything should exist at all, in a purposeless, dead, accidental, mechanical wind-up, winding-down universe (that of Darwin and Dawkins and Einstein – but not of Halton Arp), that every time they find a mechanism that better describes a process, they attribute the entire process to the little ‘switch’ they think they discovered.
It is interesting, indeed, that the current batch of evolutionary biologists are moving recklessly beyond Richard Dawkins and the Great and Holy Synthesis of Huxley and Mayr; it is wonderful that they are looking into the process that describes life as it is changing shape. What will remain a bane for all of them, though, is that they will always fail to find a prime movement. Nothing will ever stop leading them back, and back, and back – because whether they realize it or not, they are still trapped in that reactive Enlightenment worldview, desperate to disprove the existence of a certain idea of a creative universal transcendent force…
And yet remaining so unwilling to admit that it is not in the mechanists purview to either prove, or disprove it, nor should they try.
It’s neat stuff, watching the seeds develop into beings. You can describe the growing, to some degree, the “how,” but you can’t tell anyone WHY it bothers to happen. Except to say that it does…remarkably, in endless form, most infinite, indeed.
There is a mind at work in the universe, always and throughout. That the reductionists don’t want to see it, lets us know that Infinite Mind, which makes us and everything else from itself, has a remarkable sense of humor.